Exodus 19: The LORD meets his people - 13th July 2014 - Dave Walker

Bible reading: Hebrews 12:18-29

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So when you’ve been saved, what now? What next? We spend a lot of time in church talking about being saved, don’t we? About salvation and rescue. And rightly so, because the message of the Bible, the message of Jesus is a message of salvation. It’s a rescue mission. We want people to be saved from death and hell. But what about when you have been saved? What then? What comes next? Is it just a case of falling back into the old ways so we need to get rescued all over again?

Films aren’t very good at the “what next” bit, are they? They tend to end with the rescue. Our heroes and heroines have escaped, and so we bid them farewell, clinging to each other passionately among the smouldering ruins of New York, or dancing around the fire celebrating the destruction of the Death Star or whatever. The credits roll, and that’s it. What’s next?

The people of Israel have been rescued from slavery. Today we reach the end of this section of the book of Exodus, the bit that’s been all about God rescuing his people. Back in chapter 3 verse 12 the LORD said to Moses “And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.” The mountain he was talking about was Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai. God has done what he said he would. He’s rescued them from Egypt by his power. Along the way he’s given them some great rituals and songs so that they don’t forget what a wonderful thing he’s done for them. Today we reach the mountain. It’s done. What next? (p.76)

Exodus 19:1-25  In the third month after the Israelites left Egypt--on the very day--they came to the Desert of Sinai.  2 After they set out from Rephidim, they entered the Desert of Sinai, and Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain.  3 Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, "This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel:  4 `You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself.  5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine,  6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites."  7 So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the LORD had commanded him to speak.  8 The people all responded together, "We will do everything the LORD has said." So Moses brought their answer back to the LORD.  9 The LORD said to Moses, "I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you." Then Moses told the LORD what the people had said.  10 And the LORD said to Moses, "Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Make them wash their clothes  11 and be ready by the third day, because on that day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.  12 Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them,`Be careful that you do not go up the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.  13 He shall surely be stoned or shot with arrows; not a hand is to be laid on him. Whether man or animal, he shall not be permitted to live.' Only when the ram's horn sounds a long blast may they go up to the mountain."  14 After Moses had gone down the mountain to the people, he consecrated them, and they washed their clothes.  15 Then he said to the people, "Prepare yourselves for the third day. Abstain from sexual relations."  16 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled.  17 Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.  18 Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently,  19 and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.  20 The LORD descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up  21 and the LORD said to him, "Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the LORD and many of them perish.  22 Even the priests, who approach the LORD, must consecrate themselves, or the LORD will break out against them."  23 Moses said to the LORD, "The people cannot come up Mount Sinai, because you yourself warned us,`Put limits around the mountain and set it apart as holy.'"  24 The LORD replied, "Go down and bring Aaron up with you. But the priests and the people must not force their way through to come up to the LORD, or he will break out against them."  25 So Moses went down to the people and told them.

So what is next? Well I think this passage tells us very clearly. It’s this:

The LORD has bought his people for total exclusive relationship

That’s what it’s for; that’s what’s next. Total exclusive relationship. That’s what’s going on here in Exodus 19.

You can see that in verse 4, 5 and 6 which are the heart of the passage, where the Lord speaks to Moses to explain what he’s doing here. “This is what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.’” Do you see that? The hero has slain the dragon and got the girl and now she’s his. God has saved his people out of Egypt and carefully, lovingly, he has brought them to himself. For total, exclusive relationship with him. See how he goes on – verse 5 “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

The LORD has rescued his people to be his treasured possession. They are going to be his, precious to him. It seems that back in those days one of the things a king or a ruler would do is that he would look after the treasures of the kingdom. Kind of like looking after the Bank of England or something – the national treasure. But he would also have a treasure of his own, a “treasured possession”. That’s the language that gets used here. God wants his people for himself, not just in the general sense that everything in the world belongs to him in that general sense – of course it all belongs to him, he made it, he owns all of it. No it’s more than that. His treasured possession, personally precious to him, his favourites, his best, closest to his heart. That’s what he’s saved them for.

I know it’s a few months early but it won’t be long before our supermarkets are once again filled with the sounds of Mariah Carey singing ‘all I want for Christmas is you’. You know the one. It seems to come round sooner with every passing year. That song that begins “I don’t want a lot for Christmas” and then ends with “all I want for Christmas is you.” Just think about that line “I don’t want a lot for Christmas” for a second. In one sense that’s true – she’s not asking for financially expensive Christmas presents or anything like that. But in another sense it’s not true, because what she wants is far more costly. “All I want for Christmas is you” What, all of me? Yes of course all of you, what other sense is there?

That’s a bit like the sort of thing the Lord is talking about here. He’s not asking his people to do something, to pay something in order to be saved. He’s not asking them to contribute to their salvation, there’s no way they can. He has already saved them completely, he himself has done it. But now that he’s saved them he is saying that he wants them for himself. Completely. Exclusively.

That’s where the language of covenant comes in. I often say that covenant is relationship with teeth. It’s relationship where there are unbreakable promises and commitments and consequences. Marriage is a covenant. Just moving in together is not. God deals in covenant. He doesn’t do one night stands. Look at verse 5 again “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession…” This covenant he’s talking about is the same covenant God made with Abraham all those years before. The same covenant that God reminded Moses of back at the burning bush in chapter 3. Those promises which he made to his people – “I will bless you, I will redeem you, I will multiply you, I will be your God and you will be my people.” God has kept his covenant promises. He bound himself to them, he staked his life on them; he’s kept them. Now he asks his people to do the same. To keep their covenant promises to him. To be his people, just as he has proved himself to be their God. My people, I have saved you. Now all I want is you.

Now it almost goes without saying that this covenant is not a relationship between equals. I say it “almost goes without saying” because I think that actually quite a lot of us, quite a lot of the time forget who God is. More of that in a minute. This is where the analogy with human marriage breaks down, because marriage is a union of a man and a woman who are, more or less, equal. Both human. God is clearly not equal to his people. He is God. They are not. He rules, he is lord. He sets the terms, doesn’t he? There is no negotiation. He makes the offer, and it’s an offer which demands obedience. Take it or leave it.

And what do the people say? What’s their response? Verse 8: “The people all responded together, “We will do everything the LORD has said.”” They say “yes”, don’t they? You want us, LORD? You can have us. We’re your people. Now in a sense as you read that you might be justified in thinking “what? You haven’t read the small print? You don’t know what you’re letting yourself in for?” And they don’t, do they? They haven’t read the small print. In some ways the small print follows as God gives Moses the Ten Commandments and so on. But that’s not the point. As inadequate and rebellious as they often are, here God’s people are doing the right thing. They are his, whatever it means. He has pledged himself to them to be their God. He has kept his promises to the letter. So of course they say yes. We don’t know all the details, but yes. We will obey whatever it takes. We will be your people. Your treasured possession.

It’s worth saying just briefly that this relationship between God and his people is exclusive. It’s just for them. But the world is still in view. They are called to be a kingdom of priests in verse 6 aren’t they? What does that mean? Well in the Bible priests are meant to be intermediaries. Priests are there as channels so that God’s blessings can be shared with others. They do that by being set apart for God. They’re set apart so that the blessings can be shared around. That’s true in the New Testament too, by the way. Peter in his first letter takes this and applies it directly to Christians – we are royal priests. All of us Christians, not just a special subset of professionals. We’re there to be channels of God’s blessings to the world, intermediaries, knowing and showing Jesus in the midst of a world that doesn’t know him, precisely so that others can be saved and share his blessings. This is exclusive relationship with an outside focus, with a missionary edge. The intention all along has been for others to come and join in and become his people too.

But let’s pause for a moment here. There is an intensity to this relationship, isn’t there? I want us to notice that, to feel it. Do you see how complete it is? How exclusive it is? God is not messing about is he? It’s not the sort of thing you can just dip your toe into and think that that’s enough. Do you understand that? Have you got that? The New Testament turns up the volume on this, it doesn’t turn it down. God has given himself to us now much more than he had then; he’s given himself to death for us through his Son Jesus. The covenant relationship which he has saved us for hasn’t weakened, it’s deepened. Do you grasp that? So often we think “I’d quite like the salvation, the forgiveness, the rescue from hell, the insurance policy against death, and I’m willing to pay something towards that. I’ll give God my dues, I’ll think about him sometimes, I’ll come to church on a Sunday, well, a couple of times a month anyway.” Can you see how that makes a complete mockery of all that God says here? God is not asking us to pay something towards our salvation – that’s utterly impossible; he has already done everything to save us. But he’s saved us for himself. Covenant relationship doesn’t work like that: whoever said in their marriage vows “I’d quite like the sex and I’d quite like your cooking so how about I give you a couple of days a week”? Covenant relationship doesn’t work like that. Don’t kid yourself. Have you been living like that with God? Have we? We need to be careful don’t we. It’s not possible to just give God a bit. It’s all or nothing. We’re so used to being able to opt in and opt out of the bits we like or don’t like in life; we live in a choice culture where we call the shots and tailor make everything to our preferences. So this sort of God is news to us. If you are saved, you are his.

The LORD has bought his people for total exclusive relationship. The LORD has done that. Don’t forget who he is. Don’t forget who you’re talking to. This is the LORD.

That point, the ‘don’t forget who we’re talking about’ point, is what underlies the rest of the chapter. Having made this amazing offer to his people, having called them to covenant relationship with himself, God then underlines to them just who he is.

That’s what all the preparations are about. Look at verse 10: there is to be a three day preparation time, because, verse 11 “on that day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.” Verse 15 says they are to abstain from sexual relations, not because God has a downer on sex, but because something so special is happening that day that even normal stuff like marital sex that would be right and proper at other times you do not do, because you are about to meet with God. He demands their total concentration.

And then when he arrives it’s terrifying. The cloud, the fire, the noise. At the end of verse 16 “everyone in the camp trembled.” The end of verse 19 “the whole mountain trembled.” Such is the glory, the power, the majesty of God. He is fearsome; awe-inspiring; completely beyond all comparison.

And they can only approach on his terms, can’t they? All the stuff about how they can’t come charging up the mountain to see him because if they did they would die. It’s like God puts a sign at the bottom of the mountain saying “danger: high voltage”. He is so holy that nobody can approach him unless he explicitly permits them to. They can’t just walk up and say “hi God, it’s me,” can they? Oh no.

Again, why would we expect it to be otherwise? If this is the real God, if he really is as majestic and pure as the Bible consistently teaches. In fact God is being very merciful here isn’t he? Have you seen his concern in verse 21? He doesn’t want them to perish, does he? That’s an aspect of the mercy of our God. In 2 Peter 3 in the New Testament we’re told why it is that God is delaying the return of Jesus, and it’s exactly the same reason. He doesn’t want people to perish. If he came now, many would. So many are not ready to meet with the living God.

But all the fireworks have a purpose. There not just to scare the people. Look at verse 9: “The LORD said to Moses, "I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you."” God wants them to know that he really is speaking through Moses. He wants them to know who it is who is speaking. When they listen to Moses, they are listening to God. And you don’t mess with God. Don’t forget who you’re talking to. Don’t forget who is talking to you.

You see the New Testament doesn’t turn down the volume. If anything, it turns it up. We may have a false idea of the Bible, like in the Old Testament God is awesome and holy but in the New Testament he’s friendly and easy going. It’s a caricature, but I think a fair few of us may well think it’s true, deep down. Nowhere does the New Testament say “relax, God is tame after all.” This God is our God.

Think about Jesus going up the mountain with his disciples. It’s Mark chapter 9 if you want to look it up later. There is cloud, there is bright light and a voice like thunder. And what does God say? “This is my Son, listen to him.” Same message as here. Listen: to Jesus. Don’t forget who you’re talking to. He is not just a friend giving advice you can take or leave. He is the Son of the fearsome God of Exodus.

That passage we read before from Hebrews is just the same, isn’t it? It doesn’t turn down the volume, it turns it up. Why don’t we just flick on there for a moment as we draw to a close, so that we can see how this applies in our time. It’s page 1211, Hebrews 12 verse 18.

If you just cast your eye over it you can see there is a contrast. Some things are not the same now as they were then. We’re not at Sinai – verse 18 “you have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire…” and so on. The fire, the smoke, the terrors of Sinai are not before us in the same way. But what we have is not less than what they had. It’s more. Look at verse 22: “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly,  23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect,  24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

We’ve come to meet God as he is in heaven. Here, this morning, as we listen to God’s words and meet with his people, we are part of the heavenly gathering. In Jesus, God has done lots that is new and better. Jesus is a better mediator than Moses was; he shows God to us better than Moses did; his blood, his death on the cross, has made a way for us to be forgiven so that we, unlike the Israelites, can stand before God without the same fear of being destroyed. In Jesus we are more than just the people of God, we are the family of God. What we have is not less; it’s more. The volume is turned up.

But the application is still the same. Look at verse 25: “See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven?” Verse 29: “For our God is a consuming fire.” Not was a consuming fire, is a consuming fire. Don’t forget who you are talking to.

God has saved us. What for? So we can be his. Exclusively. Completely his. That’s what he’s saved us for. That’s what you’re for.